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Ward Churchill and the Black Panthers By: Rocky Mountain News
Rocky Mountain News | Wednesday, February 23, 2005

It is safe to say no one in the Colorado news media has sought to defend the views of Ward Churchill. But several pundits have suggested that Churchill's most vociferous critics have played into his hands by turning an obscure academic into a national celebrity and thus granting him greater influence than he previously enjoyed.

There is some truth in this critique - the University of Colorado professor is undoubtedly better known today than he was a month ago - but also a crippling flaw: Churchill was not an obscure academic when the controversy over his praise for 9/11 erupted. As academics go, he was better known than most of his peers and probably more influential, too. Most academics do not fly off on a regular basis to paid speaking engagements at colleges across the land. Churchill did, precisely because his writings had already raised his profile.

As for intellectual influence, there is no doubt Churchill is a prominent voice in an echo chamber of far-left academics who have managed to define the popular attitude toward several issues. Churchill has written extensively on the Black Panthers, for example, pushing the common view that they were besieged and all but exterminated by a coordinated campaign emanating from the FBI.

That the FBI targeted, harassed and infiltrated the Black Panthers is not open to doubt. Then again, the agency would have been irresponsible not to be concerned about this group, whose celebrated public image of providing armed defense to the black community concealed vicious, systematic criminal activity - much of which its surviving leaders admitted in later years. In 1998, for example, Eldridge Cleaver told 60 Minutes, "If people had listened to Huey Newton and me in the 1960s, there would have been a holocaust in this country." Newton, a founder of the Black Panthers, was a predator and drug addict who was eventually murdered in 1989 by a drug dealer.

Churchill is all but oblivious to the Panthers' criminal side. Instead, in an essay published in 2001 in an anthology titled Liberation, Imagination and the Black Panther Party, he laments the "fallen warriors of the Black Panther Party" and urges others to take up their banner. The essay is a 40-page slog, but Churchill's casual commitment to truth is fully betrayed in a table on page 109 in which he lists "The Panther Dead: Police-Induced Fatalities, 1968-1971" - a description meant to convey the idea that 29 activists were murdered by police. In fact, the list includes numerous Panthers killed by relatives, colleagues and other armed militants, or who perished in clashes with police that they initiated. He includes the likes of Alex Rackley, tortured and murdered by fellow Panthers; George Jackson, killed in an attempted jailbreak from San Quentin; Frank Diggs, whose murder was never solved (as Churchill actually admits elsewhere in his text); and Bobby Hutton, shot trying to escape (witnesses agreed) after a 90-minute gun battle with police in Oakland.

As long ago as 1971, Edward Jay Epstein debunked claims of "a pattern of genocide" in a meticulous article in The New Yorker. Additional revelations since have rounded out our knowledge, including Cleaver's admission to journalist Kate Coleman in California Magazine in 1980 that he and other Panthers provoked the battle resulting in Hutton's death by ambushing a patrol car.

To be sure, some cases are ambiguous or subject to conflicting testimony and may well have involved official lies or misconduct (the deaths of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in Chicago certainly did), but Churchill is not interested in drawing such distinctions. He is first to last a propagandist masquerading as an academic. Which is why even if CU decides to leave him where he is, Coloradans deserve to know what kind of man haunts their flagship university's ethnic studies department.

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